Confessions of a Parent (From the Dinner Table)

Children will bring out the worst in you and the best in you, all at the same time. And often, that time is dinner time…

family dinner

Photo Credit: _Dinkel_ via Compfight cc

In the middle of a Potbelly restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, sits a vintage potbelly stove, with a plaque reading: “For many years the Potbelly Stove warmed millions of homes…Families had their meals around the stove. Some read by its light. It is a symbol of warmth, dependability, family, and fun.”

Sounds ideal. And, I confess, I approach the dinner table every night with the same naïve optimism.

Until the kids see the salmon.

Or the spinach. Or the Brussels sprouts. Or anything they haven’t seen before.

Then, the dinner table quits feeling like a potbelly stove. In fact, it quits feeling like a dinner table altogether, and it starts feeling like a three-ring circus—or, rather, a three-kid circus:

A Circus

Oldest Son smells the salmon from the couch. Somewhere in his brain is a switch—the smell of fish makes him deaf and trips a hinge on his neck, dropping his nose even deeper into his book. He appears catatonic.

Meanwhile, Middle Son walks toward the table, sees the salmon in the distance, and it instantly and inexplicably triggers a bowel movement. He declares loudly, “I have to go poop!” Clever boy. How can a parent veto that?

Youngest Daughter starts out beautifully. She intuitively knows she can get approval by pleasing everyone, so she bounces to the table and climbs into her booster seat.

Fortunately, Oldest Son’s ears can be turned back on. Polite requests don’t work. Threats, consequences, and my “serious” tone of voice magically restore his hearing. He drags himself to the table like he’s carrying a cross.

And, fortunately, little legs can only sit on a toilet for so long before a kid goes numb from the waist down. So Middle Son eventually appears, approaching the table like it’s a haunted house.

Now we’re all present, but Youngest Daughter has already begun her nightly negotiations. She’s Hillary Clinton in a Hello Kitty t-shirt.

“How much do I have to eat to get dessert?”

“All of it.”

I worry about her memory, because she always seems surprised by this answer, even though we went through the exact same routine only twenty-four hours earlier. And, unfortunately, she has her own internal switch—our answer reliably triggers her tear ducts and shuts off all capacity for communication and reason.

Now Middle Son, who can sit like a statue for hours in front of a movie, can’t stop wriggling in his seat—gravity eventually wins, and he goes tumbling from his chair. His wounded cries are added to Youngest Daughter’s plaintive wails.

Which is usually when Oldest Son begins to share every detail of his day. Something we would have welcomed ten minutes ago. But now it sounds a lot like a last straw.

A Confession

I confess: somewhere in the midst of the circus, anger begins to happen somewhere in the midst of me—it says my job is to control them and to punish them until the salmon is gone. If the potbelly stove was a place of family tranquility, I have a feeling it’s because dad scared the hell out of any kid who was inconvenient. I could achieve the order I want with an iron fist or a screaming voice, but at what cost?

At the cost of the very peace I seek.

And, I confess: a part of me just wants it to be over. And I don’t mean over for the night—I mean over forever. I start to wish I could hit a fast forward button and skip over all these complicated, frustrating years.

Yet, I confess, when the house has become empty and still, and my wife and I are looking at each other over a quiet dinner of salmon, that moment won’t be good enough, either—we’ll want it all back.  Eckhart Tolle says stress is what happens when we want to be in a different moment, a different place, or a different circumstance. And, sitting at the dinner table, I know he’s right.

So, I have to confess: the problem at the dinner table isn’t my kids—it’s me.

My kids are just being kids. But I want them to be something else—adults or robots or Stepford Children. I want a different moment. I want a different circumstance. I want, I want, I want.

In the end, the dinner table isn’t a potbelly stove or a circus: the dinner table is an altar—a sacred place where we learn to sacrifice a little more of me and to embrace a little more of us, where we learn to let go of what we want and embrace what is, where we die to small wishes so we can awaken to big gifts.

And, in the end, a dinner table is just one more altar in a world full of them.

A Sacred Space

The slow line at the supermarket

or every motorist on the road

or the lover we can’t change

or the toxic boss

or the business that is failing

or people who won’t apologize

or the doubt that won’t leave us

or the spouse who did leave us

or the diagnosis

or the illness

or the wounds that won’t heal

or the scars that remain

or the nagging depression

or the raging anxiety

or a kid’s bedtime

or a kid’s bath time

or every forgotten space between all the moments of punctuated joy and sorrow.

Every moment is an altar—a sacred space in which accepting what is changes who we are.

When that happens, dinner table tears become slippery diamonds on rosy cheeks and every detail of a kid’s day is unearthed treasure and the mind quiets and the heart settles into the mess that is life.

And the sweet irony is this: the quiet mind and the settled heart are what we wanted all along.

I confess: I don’t usually find the sacred space in the midst of a salmon rebellion. But I’ll have another chance. Tonight. At the dinner table.

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In our next UnTangled Hangout this Sunday, we will continue with the second of a series of conversations entitled, “Dancing in the Courtyard: How to Find Your Center, Live From It, and (Almost) Never Leave It.” To find out more about our “Courtyard Conversations” and how to join, click here.


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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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36 thoughts on “Confessions of a Parent (From the Dinner Table)

  1. Love your column & I know it is a cliche but, cherish these moments-the staring contest between you and your wife come sooner than you think!

  2. I love your column! Your words remind me of those times…..the ones where I tuned out and wished things were quieter, calmer and my kids were exactly the way I wanted them to be. Now that they are gone and have families of their own I reminisce about all those “good” times. I’m going to send my kids a link to your column! I look forward to your next post.

    • Jean, I hope your kids enjoy the post and can appreciate that you continue to think of them, even now that they are gone.

  3. I go through the same ordeal, and too am torn between attempting to have the kids fall in line (and failing desperately), or just embracing the moment and realizing that kids will be kids. It’s a tough balancing act this parenting business! 😉 Love your blog!

    • Thank you, Miwawa. It IS a tough balance. To me, that is the hardest part of parenting, finding the middle ground between acceptance and good boundaries and limits.

  4. I tell myself quite frequently, that someday I am going to miss this. Someday I am going to be wishing I was still driving teenagers around every day. Someday I am going to miss trying to get my child to do things he doesn’t want to do. Someday I am going to wish that I could still volunteer for every PTA committee and chaperone job that comes along. Someday I am going to be bored instead of so busy I can hardly see straight. So, even though I sometimes complain, I really do love it.

    • You got it. The challenge is to bring “someday” as close to “this day” as possible, right? : )

  5. Reminds me of a Trace Atkins song. My lovely daughter, Kelsey (whom you know very well 🙂 ), printed it out for me, surrounded by pictures of her & her three siblings when they were little. It always brings tears to my eyes because it is so true. “And Then They Do” It goes:

    “In the early rush of morning,
    Trying to get the kids to school:
    One’s hanging on my shirt-tail,
    Another’s locked up in her room.
    And I’m yelling up the stairs:
    “Stop worrying ’bout your hair, you look fine.”

    Then they’re fightin’ in the backseat,
    And I’m playing referee.
    Now someone’s gotta go,
    The moment that we leave.
    And everybody’s late,
    I swear that I can’t wait till they grow up.

    Then they do, and that’s how it is.
    It’s just quiet in the mornin’,
    Can’t believe how much you miss,
    All they do and all they did.
    You want all the dreams they dreamed of to come true:
    Then they do.

    Now the youngest is starting college,
    She’ll be leavin’ in the Fall.
    And Brianna’s latest boyfriend,
    Called to ask if we could talk.
    And I got the impression,
    That he’s about to pop the question any day.

    I look over at their pictures,
    Sittin’ in their frames.
    I see them as babies:
    I guess that’ll never change.
    You pray all their lives,
    That someday they will find happiness.

    Then they do, and that’s how it is.
    It’s just quiet in the mornin’,
    Can’t believe how much you miss,
    All they do and all they did.
    You want all the dreams they dreamed of to come true:
    Then they do.

    No more Monday PTA’s,
    No carpools, or soccer games.
    Your work is done.
    Now you’ve got time that’s all your own.
    You’ve been waitin’ for so long,
    For those days to come.

    Then they do, and that’s how it is.
    It’s just quiet in the mornin’,
    Can’t believe how much you miss,
    All they do and all they did.
    You want all the dreams they dreamed of to come true:
    Then they do.

    Ah, then they do.”

    • Thank you for sharing this, and yes, your daughter blessed our family in so many ways. In fact, Oldest Son recently had a project in which he was asked to identify a special mentor, and he picked Kelsey. I think my wife just posted an image of it to Kelsey’s Facebook wall, so you can probably see it there!

  6. Your Sacred Space list is beautiful. My husband and I so appreciate the gentle guidance you provide through the transparent, insightful sharing of your lived experiences (and your Marriage Manifesto–which we often recommend–has added blessings to our lives).

    The meal time tension you’ve written about here is common for so many families (including ours). Sadly, it wasn’t until our daughters were grown (and one tragically died at 19 of bulimia) that we were exposed to the concepts of Intuitive Eating and Ellyn Satter’s Feeding Dynamics Model We share these valuable resources with you and your readers in the hopes that they may mitigate meal-time difficulties and possibly prevent future eating problems.

    With sincere gratitude for you and your work,

    Doris & Tom Smeltzer

    • Doris, I am so sorry for your loss. I simply can’t imagine the pain, but I’m grateful for the way you’re seeking to redeem it by promoting healthy eating for other people. I hope everyone who reads this will check out these resources. I wondered if the post would generate some debate about eating expectations for children, and I’m so glad to see it has only generated helpful suggestions. Thank you again, Doris.

  7. Love this. Thank you. As we prepare to send the last one off to college, with four more weeks of high school, I find that the sacred space is now found driving her to school as she goes early to study for the AP exams next week. She in the passenger seat, me driving. It’s amazing the snippets of things which emerge in those few minutes. This morning she told me about the hawk she’d seen perched on top of the high school, which allowed me to share the great blue heron I saw when I left my therapy session this week. Holy moments. Sacred time.

  8. Hi, I am a big fan of yours but I need to know exactly what you meant by the statement:
    “Every moment is an altar—a sacred space in which accepting what is changes who we are”
    Thank you.

    • Hi Delia, Thank you for following the blog! To be honest, that’s a ridiculously loaded sentence (and I’m not even sure I know exactly what it means). So I’ll make you a deal: let me know what your specific questions are, and I’ll do my best to answer them!

  9. Brought tears if nostalgia as mine are grown and I miss those precious moments so much!! In this season of grand kids now I am still learning to appreciate every moment and find humor in what I can’t control….cause now I know how to let go. Our time with them is so short. Great article!!

  10. We all had to come to the table, the preparer had cooked once, and if there was nothing on the table that appealed, a healthy alternative had to be prepared by the one who did not want to eat what was offered. At 3, my son could make his own peanut butter sandwich. Everyone grew up as healthy eaters and healthy individuals. And family time at dinner was preserved without argument.

  11. We get lost in situations that frustrate us, when someday we will smile at the memories. Thanks for reminding us of that. I work everyday just to get more fathers to be there for their kids, at dinner and all times.

  12. The birth of our beloved granddaughter Felicity made me realize the grace of living in the present. Now, effectively witnessing the richness of love is the challenge at hand. Thank you for articulating the urgent need for parents to concentrate on the importance of love and letting go of the constrainning balances embedded in today’s culture.

    • You’re welcome, Mercedes, and congratulations on the birth of your granddaughter!

  13. I can remember those dinners. Our children are in their 30s now and are amazed that we always had dinner together. And so are we. They talk more about how special that was and not so much about the food battles. I think I like that suggestion to make their own dinner. You nailed it again!

  14. English is not my native language so forgive me when I use it the wrong way 😉
    I think I got the ultimate and most obvious occasion to accept things for what they were and change my way of thinking: I already knew I wanted children when I was a kid myself. I met my husband almost 15 years ago and got married almost 12 years ago. After a while my wish for children was so big, I told my husband I didn’t take any birth control anymore, and if he didn’t want children yet, he had to take care of it himself. He wasn’t ready for it at that time. Of course my selfishness didn’t make me pregnant and then almost the worst thing that could happen, happened: my husband got cancer. At that moment my wish didn’t matter at all to me anymore. My husband and I went through a difficult time, but it brought us even more together than we were. Luckily he survived and about 2 years after the diagnosis he told me he was ready for kids. I got pregnant really fast and we got a beautiful daughter. 3 years ago my husband was told he was cured and at that time I was 3 months pregnant of my second daughter!
    At this moment I’m so ashamed of my thoughts at that time, that I’m not even sure I deserved our children. I realise that I had to let it go to get what I wanted. I’m very thankful for this lesson!!

    Both our girls are no good eaters, but I leave them. I don´t pay very much attention to it and my oldest daughter eats better and better every time. I´m sure that my youngest will too eventually.

  15. Oh, you are so lucky to have three children. I have only one, and I see what I miss 🙂 Although I might say that she is plenty in that way that she exactly knows how and when to “wake me up” or “test me”. For example, whenever I drive her somewhere I got stuck in the moment and emotion of somebody else’s driving skills. And I yell or make some not so nice remarks about the situation. My daughter will notice it every single time and she would started to tell me a joke or just said: “Hey Mum, that car has already gone!” I can be blessed for having her in my life with her passion for present moment. And I hope that it will last as long as it can despite of negotiations around the dinner table. We’ll all just keep on trying!

  16. I suspect the stove has never been a place of tranquility. Families are many things, but tranquil isn’t on the list – especially with young children.
    I’m reminded that those “good old days” we often pine for never existed. They seem to be constructs of marketing coupled with our own perceived inadequacies. To make matters worse, there is no lack of other people willing to confirm our suspicions that we are poor parents.

    My solution was two-fold. 1st: Stop comparing myself – especially to my parents. It isn’t reasonable. My memories are fallible, and the ones that are easily recalled are from my late teens. By then, they had 16-18 years of practice on being a parent. That also ignores the fact they were also professional educators, with a wealth of experience in dealing with kids of all types and temperaments. Expecting myself to operate at that level of competency on say, year 5 of being Dad was completely unreasonable on my part.

    Next up:Get honest with myself. Who am I willing to be as a parent, and what do I want to nurture in our children? FWIW, I found the notion of nightly dinner arbitrary – someone else’s idea. My wife agrees, so we let it go.

    Once I got some clarity on what I wanted, I found myself much more confident. Less inclined to anger and frustration. While it is unreasonable to expect frustration-free, I am no longer plagued by doubts as to my parenting skills. Nor do I wish for something other than what I have. I’m an awesome father of awesome kids married to an awesome wife, and our family is sacred.

    I’m also an incredibly lucky guy.

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  21. Thank you. This is my dinner diner table, too, which also is populated by three children and two adults. I appreciate your invitation to see these crazy-making moments as opportunities to grow grace. Maybe tonight.

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